In much of the world babywearing is a normal part of every day life. We look at the health benefits of carrying your baby in a sling, and explain how to do it safely.
By Zoe Woodman
We earn a commission for products purchased through some links in this article.
What’s the safest way to carry your new baby to keep them healthy and happy? Sling consultant and Luna Hive Expert Zoe Woodman explains how to get the hang of babywearing and outlines the benefits for both baby and you:
What is babywearing?
Babywearing essentially means carrying your child on your body, whether that is tying a piece of fabric around them and you, or using a soft structured carrier.
Babywearing was actually a term used by Dr Sears in the 1980’s to describe carrying a baby attached to you, as if they were being worn in clothing. Yet, as a concept it is not new. All cultures have carrying history and tools that have helped us to carry our children; it is part of how we evolved as humans. In much of the world babywearing is a normal part of every day life.
How do you do it safely?
Most things we do have some element of risk; crossing the road, driving a car, etc. There are some useful guidelines to ensure we carry as safely as possible. Newborns or those with low muscle tone are particularly vulnerable to suffocation and therefore there are important checks to go through each time:
✔️ Can baby breathe?
You always want to be able to see baby’s mouth and nose to check their airway is clear ie fabric or clothing is not obstructing their face.
✔️ Can you lean forward gently and baby stays snug to your body?
You may need to offer some head support but need to make sure their body remains close with no space. If baby comes away from your body then the sling/carrier needs tightening. If it is too loose it may lead to baby slumping or curving too much, causing the chin to come forward onto their chest, which may impact their breathing.
✔️ Can you be hands-free?
This means you don’t need to offer additional support using your hands as the sling/carrier is fully supporting your child. If you feel the need to use your hands then the sling/carrier likely needs adjusting in some way.
An important thing to remember is that if it doesn’t feel right then it probably isn’t. Putting baby in an upright position facing wearer chest to chest is the safest option.
✔️ Hip dysplasia
This also something that gets mentioned as some carriers are marketed as hip healthy. This is a hip condition which means the joint is under-developed and can pop out. Narrow based carriers do not cause hip issues in the most part, although it can exacerbate a pre-existing issue. It is possible to use slings/carriers if your child is being treated for hip issues as the harnesses or boots and bars etc. hold the hips in a fixed position usually quite wide, similar to the position if using a wide based carrier or knee to knee positioning in a stretchy or a woven for example.
It is important with buckle carriers that the straps are adjusted and tightened well. Following the safety steps above, regardless of what you are using, will ensure you carry your child safely.
What are the benefits for baby?
Your baby has spent their journey before birth in a dark, warm, cosy space, gently cushioned in water, hearing muffled sounds whilst being in constant motion, being continuously fed, no smells, and the constant sound of their mother’s heartbeat.
The term “4th trimester” is used to describe the first months after birth, when your baby is transitioning to being in the world. They can now move their limbs out stretched, the light is bright on their eyes, noises are loud and unfamiliar, yet silence is strange also. They are unused to being still or moved suddenly. They experience lots of new smells, the temperature changes, and they need to do something in order to be fed. This amount of change for an adult would be difficult! Yet your baby has never known any other place than with you.
Carrying in a sling/carrier can be similar to before they were born. Many of those things that were familiar to them are there when being carried.
Babywearing and stress
A baby’s brain is very primitive, working purely off primitive reflexes in order to ensure survival. All their behaviour is driven from reflexes which are automated responses to a stimulus which eventually over time become learned behaviours. A sure way to survive is to stay very close to the person who is meeting your needs and they can meet these needs more quickly when close. Less crying means less stress to baby and keeping your baby in a state of low stress through meeting their needs, helps to support their brain development.
Keeping your baby in a state of low stress through meeting their needs, helps to support their brain development.
Research shows high levels of cortisol and other stress hormones can negatively impact brain development and neural connections. Soft touch and skin to skin helps release oxytocin which is a hugely powerful hormone and this helps to reduce the impact of cortisol. Oxytocin is also involved in bonding and attachment and supports the development of responsive behaviour in new parents.
When baby is close, we communicate more with them, aiding social development. Because baby knows they are in their safe place they are often more able to engage with the world around them as their basic homeostatic regulatory needs are being met. Carrying in slings can make it easier in many ways to meet the baby’s needs.
What are the benefits for the parent?
Carrying can enable parents to meet their baby’s needs whilst also meeting their own. Having a new baby is demanding, and a baby that wakes as soon as you put them down can be extremely stressful. Keeping baby close helps parents to feel calm, through the release of oxytocin.
Keeping baby close helps parents to feel calm, through the release of oxytocin.
Carrying can also make the world more accessible, for example, helping parents to get out and about easier. Carrying can also be healing if birth was traumatic or if separated from baby, again through the mechanisms of oxytocin. It can even support our body postnatally to adjust to the rapid changes after birth. These changes happen very gradually over pregnancy and carrying can help to distribute the weight across our body by using a sling/carrier.
Does babywearing promote attachment?
There is very little direct research on carrying in slings and attachment. What we know about neuroscience, hormones and how they are released however supports close physiological and emotional attachment between baby and parent.
Anisfield et al (1990) in a study exploring baby wearing and attachments stated that ‘increased physical contact achieved through the use of a soft baby carrier makes mother more responsive to their infants and promotes the formation of more secure attachment between infant and mother at 13m. The physical contact inherent in carrying seems to have brought out latent nurturing behaviour.’
Can toddlers benefit from it too?
Carrying is beneficial regardless of the age of the child. From what we understand about brain and language development this continues into toddlerhood and beyond. Interactions and shared experiences are key. A child up close at your height is much more involved in the world and what is happening.
Babywearing can facilitate many activities using slings with older children such as large crowds.
It can facilitate many activities using slings with older children such as large crowds which might overwhelm or travel for example. There are slings/carriers specially designed for older children and for those with specific needs or conditions that may benefit from closeness and touch. It is amazing how supportive a good fitting sling/carrier can be.
Are there any disadvantages?
There are many myths around carrying and sling use. Particularly that it makes a child clingy. However the research shows us that by keeping them close and by meeting their needs, they grow to be confident independent individuals.
If a sling/carrier is not well adjusted or not well fitted, it may be uncomfortable to carry. They key is to seek some support to make adjustments to ensure it is comfortable for the person carrying as well as the child. Often small tweaks make a big difference. Some find it useful to move onto toddler or preschool sized carriers for example.